Protein is the major nutrient focused upon by athletes, coaches, and the fitness industry as a whole. Whenever it is discussed, the overarching theme is usually "How to get more protein", but is this the best perspective to take? As I discussed in last month's article, new research has indicated that on top of being stressful to your kidneys and causing inflammation, excess protein may negatively impact your longevity! So rather than asking ourselves how we can get in as much protein as possible, why don't we instead look at how to get as little as possible while still striving to optimize building new muscle mass and improving our athletic performance?
Athletes looking to improve their body composition and gain muscle mass are often recommended to have as much as 1-1.5g of protein per pound of bodyweight every single day (up to 300 grams per day for a 200lb bodybuilder!) by coaches, friends, or just reading any mainstream fitness articles on the subject. These numbers are very challenging to reach on anything resembling a healthy diet, as I can personally attest, having striven to eat this much protein for my first years as a bodybuilder. And it may be entirely unnecessary. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, strength and power athletes will optimize their performance by consuming 1.6-1.8 grams of protein per Kilogram of bodyweight each day (which comes out to about 0.8 grams per pound of weight, or 160g grams per day for our 200lb bodybuilder example) - about half of what is commonly recommended! So why is more protein being recommended to improve your bodybuilding results everywhere you look? Is more really better?
In 2006 a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition set out to test if protein above these recommendations was, in fact, better. They placed 23 collegiate strength/power athletes on a diet below, at, or above the ACSM recommended protein intakes while being the same in total calories and had them follow a 12 week strength training program. At the end of the program they tested each athlete's improvements in strength and lean body mass, and guess what they found? There was no significant difference between any of the groups in any of these measures. All 23 participants improved in strength and body composition, and while I should mention there were slight differences in each group amounting to a slightly better result in the higher protein groups, it was not statistically significant and therefore was just as likely due to random chance as to the variables tested.
Given these results, and our knowledge of the dangers of consuming excess protein, it seems prudent to set these recommended values as an upper threshold for protein intake. Since there were no significant differences between the groups, you can certainly make a case for eating below 1.6 grams of protein per kg bodyweight each day. If you want to accept the risks of eating a little extra protein in case those statistically insignificant results were due to extra protein rather than random chance, I'd still not recommend going above 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight each day. This is more than enough for anyone on a calorically adequate diet, and in going above this amount you are not only adding more stress for your body to recover from, but you are taking up 'space' in your diet by eating protein when you could be eating something else that would better fuel your performance and enhance your recovery. As with everything in nutrition and fitness, every body is a little different, so don't be afraid to try eating a few different concentrations of protein over time to see what works best for you. Good luck!
Hoffman, et al. Effect of Protein Intake on Strength, Body Composition, and Endocrine Changes in Strength/Power Athletes. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 3(2): 12-18, 2006